How the Special Victims Unit in Hampden County works to bring child abusers to justice

SPRINGFIELD — On a gray afternoon in September 2018, angry parents surrounded a youth boxing coach’s gym on Belmont Avenue — incensed because they believed he had raped their sons.

Robert Hersey locked his doors and called 911, as he peered out of the glass storefront. Police quelled the crowd and arrested Hersey. He was charged with abusing six boys under his supervision.

The parents came for vigilante justice. What they needed — and got — was help from the Special Victims Unit in the Hampden District Attorney’s office. The unit handles the ugliest criminal cases in the system – child abuse, sexual abuse and abuse of the disabled – while operating largely out of view. It has grown in staff and caseload since the early 1990s.

Those willing to do the work lean on each other for support, according to Assistant District Attorney Eileen Sears, head of the unit since 2021 and a child abuse prosecutor for more than 25 years.

“No one else in the office outside of our unit wants to talk about the details of our cases. They’re disturbing,” Sears said.

Most of eight prosecutors in the unit handle up to 40 active cases at a time and more that are under investigation.

In 2022, the unit opened 933 cases. Of those, 585 were child sexual abuse; 122 were physical abuse and of those, 33 entailed both sexual and physical abuse, Sears said. So far in 2023, they’ve opened 373 cases. Of those, 222 involved allegations of sexual abuse and 43 are physical abuse prosecutions. Ten involve allegations of both sexual abuse and physical abuse.

Sears and her team work to convict the guilty, but gauge their efficacy more broadly.

Hampden Assistant District Attorney Eileen Sears talks with clerk Brian Dolaher during an appearance in Hampden Superior Court. She has led the Special Victims Unit since 2021 and has served as a child abuse prosecutor for more than 25 years. “There is no substitute for a child’s testimony in the courtroom once a case gets to trial,” she said. (File photo / Don Treeger / The Republican)

“That’s not always our measure of success – wins or losses. We focus as heavily on providing supports including connecting victims with counseling and giving them a platform to tell their stories,” she said. “Win or lose, at least you believed them and prepared them for that trial.”

She and her staff often remain in contact with victims years after cases are closed.

But in the case of Hersey and the young boxers who were his victims: that was a win.

Hersey was convicted in 2021 of indecent assault and sentenced to up to eight years in prison, according to Sears. Several of the teen boys had to take the witness stand to tell a jury how Hersey groomed them, plied them with liquor and pornography and eventually assaulted them.

“That’s something people need to understand. There is no substitute for a child’s testimony in the courtroom once a case gets to trial,” she said.

The Republican interviewed one of Hersey’s victims. He was 17 in 2018 and looked to Hersey for support as he went through a difficult time. Hersey took him to a massage parlor to “relax” and the teen found himself in a dark parking lot in a corner of Springfield’s Blunt Park.

“I remember there were no streetlights and it was cloudy so I couldn’t even see any stars or moonlight,” said the man, now 21. It is the newspaper’s policy not to name sexual assault victims.

“I complied. I didn’t know what else to do, and I was scared,” the man said.

He turned to family members, who were part of that crowd that showed up outside Hersey’s gym. Detectives began investigating and brought in the Special Victims Unit – which the man credits with helping him make it through the ordeal, along with his family.

“They were my rock,” he said of the SVU team. “They believed me. They brought me through the worst thing that ever happened to me in my life.”

He is now a newly married father with a job in the military.

Building cases

In Hampden County, the Special Victims Unit launched in the early 1990s when former District Attorney William Bennett asked former assistant prosecutor Elizabeth Dineen whether she would be willing to handle child and sexual abuse cases.

“I said ‘Yeah, for maybe a year,’” Dineen said with a chuckle during a recent interview.

She lasted 24 years.

“It really wasn’t something I wanted to volunteer for, especially having had my own child. It’s just so sad and depressing and you’re really dealing with evil,” Dineen said.

Before becoming CEO of the YWCA of Western Massachusetts, Elizabeth Dineen ran the Special Victims Unit of the Hampden DA’s office. Dineen and other prosecutors traveled to schools, police departments and attended grand rounds for doctors at local hospitals to educate them on how to recognize and report potential instances of sexual abuse. (File photo / Hoang ‘Leon’ Nguyen / The Republican)

But she found herself drawn in, year after year, by the heartbreak of the work. She honed her skills, alongside two other prosecutors in the unit and local and state detectives. The team’s work became more sophisticated and it persuaded judges to mete out steeper penalties for sexual abuse offenders.

“I started getting sentences that were 90, 100, 120 years,” she recalled.

To aid these special victims, the team needed allies in the community. Dineen and other prosecutors traveled to schools, police departments and attended grand rounds for doctors at local hospitals to educate them on how to recognize and report potential instances of sexual abuse.

Important legislative developments came in 1996, when the state passed a law to create the sex offender registry, mandating that Level 2 and 3 sex offenders register with cities and towns in the event they moved.

“As the Catholic priests would get moved from parish to parish, sex offenders often moved from, say, Springfield to Boston to elude local police departments and get fresh access to children,” Dineen said.

Sears and Dineen say sex offenders typically engage in self-delusion, to absolve themselves of the harm they do to children.

“I remember one case [of] a family friend raping a little girl. He would make her say the alphabet or count to 100 while he was raping her,” Dineen said. “At sentencing, he told a judge he was ‘helping’ her learn her letters and numbers because no one else in her family was doing that. These are the people you are dealing with in these cases.”

She is now CEO of the YWCA of Western Massachusetts, where she still advocates for victims of domestic violence. Above her desk at the YWCA hangs the same prayer to Saint Francis of Assisi that she kept on her desk in the district attorney’s office.

“Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy,” it reads.

SVU expands

Since taking office nearly a decade ago, Hampden County District Attorney Anthony D. Gulluni doubled the staff of the Special Victims Unit and increased funding for specialized training.

“The work is so labor-intensive and unique that I really wanted to support and provide resources for that unit and the people who choose to do that work because they want to protect kids,” he said. “I saw that as an obligation unique to my position and my coming in new to say, ‘Alright, I think they’re overwhelmed. I think they’re under-resourced.’ And I really took it upon my administration to change that.”

Gulluni restructured the office to move adult sexual and physical abuse cases to another unit, allowing the special victims team to focus exclusively on children and the disabled.

Victim-witness advocates and forensic interviewers are critical to the process, Gulluni said. They are trained to conduct interviews with abused and vulnerable children at the Baystate Family Advocacy Center on Carew Street.

The DA’s office works with clinicians at Baystate Health who participate in multidisciplinary team interviews with victims. Police, prosecutors and others can listen in from another room to insert questions through an earpiece worn by the forensic interviewer.

Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni doubled the staff of the Special Victims Unit. “The numbers are going up,” he said of the unit’s cases. “And in some respects maybe that means we’re getting more reports and maybe that’s a good thing. But it also means that more of this stuff is happening and that’s really tragic.” (File photo / Don Treeger / The Republican)

Gulluni said this approach is key to prosecuting these cases – and distinct from prosecutions of other crimes. The interview method seeks to lighten the burden on victims.

“It’s really designed for that child to do it once and once only. The child can give his or her story, recite the facts and recite the abuses and not have to relive that time and time again,” he said.

Amid the heightened awareness of child abuse, mandatory reporting laws and tracking of convicted sex offenders, the number of cases never seems to decrease.

“Generally speaking if you’re looking at a longer arc, the numbers are going up. And in some respects maybe that means we’re getting more reports and maybe that’s a good thing. But it also means that more of this stuff is happening and that’s really tragic,” Gulluni said.

According to national research portal Statista, which did a sweeping look at child abuse statistics in 2020 and published a report two years later, there were 588,229 reported victims of child abuse in the U.S. that year. Of those, 1,753 involved fatalities.

In Hampshire and Franklin counties, the division of labor is structured slightly differently, but the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office employs a similar model for child abuse cases.

Prosecutors and staff there also conduct interviews with victims at children’s advocacy centers with the same goal, according to spokesperson Laurie Loisel. Those centers are private nonprofit agencies, however, that partner closely with Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan’s office.

Loisel said the Hampshire County Children’s Advocacy Center opened prior to Sullivan’s tenure, but Sullivan advocated for launching a second one in Franklin County. That office, in Greenfield, is called the Children’s Advocacy Center of Franklin County and North Quabbin.

Inside the room

In Hampden County, Stephanie Briggs is one of the forensic interviewers. She has spent more than a decade doing the work.

The room in which she conducts hundreds of interviews with children each year is small, with two chairs and a table and equipped with microphones to connect the team and two cameras. The chairs are designed to be comfortable, and there is typically blank paper and a pen in case a child wants to write something down.

Briggs always provides Play-Doh in case a child wants to hold something while they’re talking – and crayons for children under 10.

“Nothing is a secret or a trick. I explain that this is a team. I explain what the earpiece is for and I always ask them whether they have any questions before I start the interviews,” Briggs said. “It’s not just ‘Sit down and tell me about the bad things that happened to you.’”

The interviews must be legally sound but also developmentally sensitive, she said. It’s a mixture of art and science.

“The way I talk to a 4-year-old is not the same way I talk to a 15-year-old,” Briggs said.

She also works with victims to be specific about the environments in which they were abused.

“We ask, for instance, ‘Was it daytime or nighttime? Was it in the basement or kitchen? Were you indoors or outdoors?’” Briggs said.

Most stories shift over time, and that is especially true for children. Not because they are dishonest, but because they are children, Briggs said.

In addition to the conviction of the boxing coach, Sears and her team have logged significant courtroom wins over the past few years, with the pandemic slowing down many cases significantly.

Justin Armstrong, for instance, pleaded guilty to aggravated child rape last year after many years of gaming the system, according to Sears. The defendant went through three attorneys and remained in denial, the prosecutor said, despite having impregnated a 10-year-old girl.

“We had DNA and we had him dead to rights and were grateful for that family for sticking with us as long as they did during COVID and through all his shenanigans with attorneys,” Sears said. “And that child, that child was brave. I’m often humbled by these kids being so brave, given what they’ve gone through.”

Armstrong is serving a prison sentence of up to 16 years.

Another case Sears cited was the 2017 prosecution of Lamonte Johnson, a case out of Holyoke in which Johnson abused two boys aged 7 and 8. He sidled up to single, working mothers and posed as a much-needed support for an overwhelmed parent. Meanwhile he beat the children with clubs and sticks and forced them to perform sexual acts.

“This is how he played it. He would pass himself off as a positive, father figure to the women,” Sears said.

It was only when the boys grew a little older that they came forward separately to disclose the abuse to adults and later to investigators.

Johnson was defiant to the end, Sears said. He testified on his own behalf and insisted he was “helping” the mothers and their boys. Jurors deliberated for about 10 hours and returned seven convictions involving the two victims, including aggravated rape and abuse and assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon.

Johnson is serving an 18-year prison sentence.

Horrific evidence

Also key to the process are police detectives in cities and towns across Hampden County.

Springfield police Sgt. Karen Simmons at her desk in the Detective Bureau. “I see repeat victims. I see repeat offenders,” Simmons said. (Don Treeger / The Republican)

Springfield Police Sgt. Karen Simmons has worked on sexual abuse cases for years, along with other violent crimes. She has collaborated with the SVU as a detective and now as a supervisor of junior officers.

It is an emotionally harrowing assignment. Simmons says the worst spot in the police department, for her and others, is the “drier.” That is where police hang bloody clothes of victims of abuse, in order to preserve the evidence.

She once investigated a man who used proxies to lure 12- to 14-year-olds into sexual abuse using Santeria, a religious tradition in Latin America. And she has seen the same victims and abusers over and over.

“I see repeat victims. I see repeat offenders,” Simmons said. “In this day and age, why are we still raising repeat abusers and offenders?”

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